In August of last year, I found myself standing in a grotto, its walls grey and damp, adorned with stalactites. The flickering light from our headlamps created an eerie atmosphere as I struggled to keep my footing on the ancient steps of a sunken amphitheatre enclosed by tuff as hard as stone. Amidst the lava, a painted fresco caught my eye – the work of the first visitors to these incredible finds, twenty meters underground. Beneath their scrawlings lay a graffito painted on the wall by a slave two thousand years ago. The author of that graffito had long since passed away, and the silence was broken only by the sound of dripping water.
My guide pointed to the ceiling, and I recoiled in surprise – a face stared back at me from the lava. “This is the imprint of a statue recovered from the tufa here in this place,” my guide explained.
My heart raced with excitement. Who could forget those school lessons just before Christmas, where we first learned about the famous letter Pliny the Younger wrote to Tacitus, describing how Vesuvius devoured the Campanian coast in 79 AD? Pompeii, Herculaneum, Boscoreale – these names have become synonymous with myth ever since. And here I was, deep beneath Vesuvius, in one of the passages dug by the first explorers of these sites into the ash from local wells. Few were allowed access to this place, reserved only for the occasional scientist. This was where it all began – archaeology.
Pliny’s letters had already led me down a path of speculation. The common school translation of his letter read: “He had just stepped out of the house, having received a letter from Rectina, the wife of Cascus, who was alarmed at the impending danger (for her estate lay at the foot of Vesuvius and there was no other escape than by ship) and she begged him to rescue her from the threat. Upon this he changed his plan, and what he had begun out of curiosity he now executed with nobility.”
But I knew that Admiral Pliny had been stationed in Baia, north of Naples, with his fleet, providing shelter for the emperor (whose villas are now submerged under water). This left me wondering how Rectina’s letter had reached Pliny. She couldn’t have sent it by ship, as that would have been her escape route. Carrier pigeons were a possibility, but why would a simple acquaintance have access to the admiral’s pigeons, which would have returned to him? Furthermore, Pliny was over fifty years old, unmarried, and obese – a mistress was unlikely. I also pondered why Pliny had sent the entire fleet to aid a mere acquaintance instead of protecting the emperor, who was also in danger due to Naples’ proximity to the volcano. And finally, I wondered why Pliny stayed on the coast after realizing all was lost, instead of turning back and escaping.
Once you start asking such questions and begin to investigate, you will inevitably be captivated by the incredible story of the volcanic eruption in 79 AD, discovering one mystery and answer after another. I started writing a book about it, which has become a thriller, meticulously researched and based on facts. It’s about the first excavation of the remains of Herculaneum under the tunnels of the small village of Resina, the errors of the historians, criminals and treasure thieves, dark passages in the lava, and what still lies beneath. Especially the latter.
The book also explores Naples, the scent of oranges, the blue gulf, the sun, poverty, and a region that Goethe already idolized. Love, drama, and adventure add spice to the story. How could they not?
No, I won’t give away too much when I reveal that I discovered Pliny’s letters no longer exist in the original, and their translation is flawed. The ancient Romans wrote in capital letters, without full stops or commas, and with a thousand abbreviations. To err is human. I am convinced today that Pliny never received a letter from his mysterious friend Rectina, but a marching order from the place Rectina, which is identical with the famous Villa of the Papyri (and thus today’s Ercolano). Nor did he set off with the fleet simply out of nobility, but because someone important enough lived in that villa to set it in motion and be in constant homing-pigeon communication with it. It is a mystery who this was (and I have my ideas about it). Pliny never returned alive because his ships did not have the technology to sail against the wind, and many others suffered the same fate. It was a difficult time.
It is not as easy as one might imagine to escape from the coast on such an ominous day. As a result, many things that could have been saved with luckier winds remained trapped in houses and harbours.
The Villa of the Papyri, when discovered, was overflowing with historical papyri of incalculable value. Today, it is home to world-famous statues, mosaics and frescoes, yet it still lies buried in tuff. Visitors cannot explore it, and the ancient tunnels that run through it have mostly been buried once again. Furthermore, two of its three floors remain unexplored, as they have been shattered in their center by the force of the lava avalanche and are now crumbling, filled with mysteries and riddles.
Come along with me, or rather, join the aged carabiniere Camarata and the charismatic professor Cariello on a breathtaking quest for a mysterious murderer and their prey, which they find in the Villa, following the trail of history into the depths beneath the lava of Vesuvius in Herculaneum. Experience the thrill of the hunt with them, unravel the mysteries, and feel the warmth of the southern sun on your face. Perhaps, in the process of reading, you too may discover something of personal significance.
I would be delighted.
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